Seeking Little Brother

How kids might benefit from the great format hunt

American television is suddenly awash in reality shows developed overseas. An industry that once seemed to believe "foreign" programming was anything produced outside Los Angeles is going global, led by Survivor, Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Jolted by these hits, network executives are digging through European formats like vinyl junkies at a used-record store, certain there's an Elvis rarity hidden among the Motorhead cutouts.

More Eureality is on the way, mostly variants on the current hits: Big Brother on a double-decker bus; Survivor at boot camp; a group of kids taking on a nearly impossible task, while an adult host alternates between helping and obstructing.

OK, I lied. That last one isn't currently in development but could be, if children's programmers join their prime time kin in casting a wider net for new ideas. It was the setup for the early-'90s Channel 4/UK series Beat That. Preteens were given a challenge, like running a restaurant for an evening. They could seek expert advice, but not direct assistance. They had just four days to find a venue, invite guests, plan the menu, buy groceries, cook and serve dinner. (Because Channel 4 has a particular mandate to serve "special" audiences, some of the children and the adult host were disabled, but this was never exploited or even mentioned.) The result was great TV: as with Millionaire or Survivor, viewers rooted for-or against-every snag or success.

Telemundo already airs Nickelodeon programming in Spanish. Here's a Euro-format the two might co-produce: a game show where children on the same team speak different languages and can win only by finding other ways to communicate. That was the premise for Babel Tower, made with German and Polish children for Telewizja Polska a few years ago. The U.S.'s fast-growing Latino population would make an English/Spanish version a natural.

Local stations with kids' clubs might consider this simple, inexpensive game from Danish public television. By speaking directions over the phone, a viewer guides a cameraman through the station's prop room, seeking hidden objects (hiding places are shown at the start, in fast motion). Beat the clock and win a prize: Low tech meets interactive TV.

Young people increasingly see themselves as producers of media, not just consumers. Numerous recent television series have put that idea into action, giving teens video cameras to tell their own stories. Among the most successful efforts is the recent ABC/Australia contest, Race Around the Corner. Pairs of teens create short films about their lives and hometowns, and the productions are judged for prizes by media experts and pop-culture icons. The series is derived from a wider-traveling young-adult series, Race Around the World.

Freshness is key. Whatever you think of the new "reality" series, each is (for now) unique, enticing jaded summer audiences. Will copycat versions sustain the excitement? Will TV become more innovative or just more outrageous? This and more remain to be seen.

It is clear, though, that children crave and deserve variety from television, just like adults. It won't take long for some brave children's programmer to invent or import something wholly new, and strike gold in the great format rush.